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The Common Cause

Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy, 1900-1955

The Common Cause

Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy, 1900-1955

Europeans and Americans tend to hold the opinion that democracy is a uniquely Western inheritance, but in The Common Cause, Leela Gandhi recovers stories of an alternate version, describing a transnational history of democracy in the first half of the twentieth century through the lens of ethics in the broad sense of disciplined self-fashioning. Gandhi identifies a shared culture of perfectionism across imperialism, fascism, and liberalism—an ethic that excluded the ordinary and unexceptional. But, she also illuminates an ethic of moral imperfectionism, a set of anticolonial, antifascist practices devoted to ordinariness and abnegation that ranged from doomed mutinies in the Indian military to Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual discipline.
Reframing the way we think about some of the most consequential political events of the era, Gandhi presents moral imperfectionism as the lost tradition of global democratic thought and offers it to us as a key to democracy’s future. In doing so, she defends democracy as a shared art of living on the other side of perfection and mounts a postcolonial appeal for an ethics of becoming common.

256 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Asian Studies: South Asia

History: Asian History

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Philosophy: Ethics

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


"As intellectual history with real contemporary resonance, Leela Gandhi’s The Common Cause . . . makes impressively wide-ranging connections in time and space. It makes excellent use of theory and a number of well-known philosophers. It is elegantly written and well constructed, and it communicates a generous vision which is sincere and passionate."

Radical Philosophy

“Gandhi mobilizes ideas and practices across the globe with a sense of investigative symmetry that is a rarity in our times. . . . Her erudition is impressive.”

Exemplar: The Journal Of South Asian Studies

The Common Cause is the most thoroughgoing defence of the value of infinite inclusivity to postcolonial studies. Its publication signals that the time is ripe for a productive interdisciplinary debate between postcolonial studies and studies of colonization in other fields.”


“Impressive. . . . Gandhi’s study, in effect, de-provincializes a major presumption about democracy—a Western precept that could only function if a dualistic idea of self and God were in place in the first instance—by positing a theory of nonbeing which provides other means of refashioning democratic values.”

Journal of Commonwealth Literature

“This deeply thoughtful and unsettling book challenges how we conceive the (historical) event, what place we make for imagination and the everyday in the history of ideas, and ultimately, how we understand empire and anticoloniality.”

American Historical Review

“Richly variegated and luminous. . . . It is tempting to single out The Common Cause as extraordinary, exceptional and erudite, but the true brilliance of this work consists rather in its defining democratic qualities. It traces collaborative pathways of exit from imperial-fascist formations by revealing simultaneous and polyphonic ethical dispositions that furnish anticolonial practices. It is clamorous and ludic, amusing and irreverent, enabling us to understand how one way of transcending an establishment is by refusing to take it seriously.”

Postcolonial Studies

“A brilliant mapping of anticolonial logics and antinomies shaping democratic solidarity.”

English Academy Review

The Common Cause strikingly reframes the political history of the first half of the twentieth century, recovering an occulted strand of democratic practice defined by its moral imperfectionism—its dedication to forms of self-ruination, inconsequence, making oneself less rather than more. Drawing on an unusual mix of archives, and moving fluidly between dynamic analysis and vivid historical narrative, this study is a major contribution to current debates on the relation of ethics to politics. An important and original book.”

Amanda Anderson, Brown University

The Common Cause brings a new dimension to the history of anticolonial struggles. In forgotten meetings, surprise encounters, and anomalous events that exceed the frame of traditional historiography, Gandhi finds a transnational art of the possible expressed in a minor key, in the most unexpected of ways: asceticisms of imperfection, ethics of undoing, and celebrations of the inconsequential. But the consequences are enormous—no less than an alternate history of democracy foregrounding events of errant relation. A major contribution to postcolonial studies that not only gives us a new sense of the past, but reopens ethical paths to the future.”

Brian Massumi, Université de Montréal

"Historical in reference and contemporary in intention, this admirably researched, closely argued volume proposes an expansion of our understanding of democracy beyond the familiar geographical and conceptual habitats of the West and, through this, a reconsideration of the ethical dimension of democratic forms of life.... The salience of Gandhi's work, however, comes from its divergences--its veering away not only from Western, metropolitan theorists of democracy but also from strands of postcolonial studies that adopt a binary, agonistic frame to analyze the colonial encounter."

Cultural Critique

Table of Contents

Introduction: Moral Imperfection: An Ethics for Democracy
1 After Virtue: The Strange Case of Belle Époque Socialist Antimaterialism
2 On Descent: Stories from the Gurus of Modern India
3 Elementary Virtues: Great War and the Crisis of European Man
4 Inconsequence: Some Little-Known Mutinies Around 1946
Epilogue: Paths of Ahimsaic Historiography

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